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Will U.S. intervention in Venezuela help or harm its people?

In Caracas, a revitalized Venezuelan opposition braved physical threats to demand that national assembly head Juan Guaidó replace President Nicolás Maduro. The Trump administration is backing Guaidó, but critics question whether U.S. intervention will help the country’s suffering population. Nick Schifrin talks to former Venezuelan diplomat Isaías Medina and the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Ben Gedan.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The showdown over the future of Venezuela continued today, both in Caracas and in Washington.

    Protesters answered a call to take to the streets from the man the Trump administration recognizes as the country's interim leader.

    And, as Nick Schifrin reports, today's protests come amid an intense push by the United States to remove Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On the streets Venezuela's capital today, a revitalized opposition demanded freedom and expressed confidence they could change the future. Thousands of protesters filled Caracas, calling for President Nicolas Maduro's ouster.

    They braved physical threats to request new free elections and the transfer of power to National Assembly head Juan Guaido. Today, Guaido's supporters chanted that, when he declared himself interim president last week, he brought back hope, as he was mobbed with cameras.

  • Juan Guaido:

    We have begun to build a majority, winning international support, like in Parliament, by speaking out against human rights violations and corruption in Venezuela. During this time, we want to bring an end to this usurpation, bring in a transitional government and free elections.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Since the latest round of protests began last week, human rights groups say at least 35 people have been killed by security forces. Today's demonstrations were smaller, but spread from areas that were once government strongholds to elite Caracas neighborhoods.

    New York Times reporter Ana Vanessa Herrero was there.

  • Ana Vanessa Herrero:

    The opposition asked everyone for two hours to stop what they were doing, and, for example here, it's a private hospital in the capital city, in the east side of the capital city.

    And we can see doctors, we can see nurses stopping their jobs, stopping their day and their day-to-day lives to protest against Nicolas Maduro and to ask the government to — to open a path for transition.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Maduro relies on the military's support to stay in power. As seen on state TV today, he rallied troops and offered to meet with the opposition. But he also opposes U.S. influence, and recorded a video message addressed to the American people.

  • Nicolas Maduro:

    I am appealing to your conscience, I am appealing to your solidarity, I am appealing for you to wake up to the truth. Let's not permit a Vietnam in Latin America. If the United States tries to intervene here, they will have a Vietnam that's worse than you can imagine.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But the U.S. is increasing its intervention.

    Today, President Trump had his first phone conversation with Guaido. On Monday, National Security Adviser John Bolton spoke to White House reporters while holding a notepad suggesting the U.S. could deploy 5,000 troops to neighboring Colombia.

    And the U.S. is trying to redirect payments for Venezuelan oil, which account for 90 percent of the country's revenues, to Guaido. Today, Guaido's self-declared ambassador to the U.S., Carlos Vecchio, said that process had begun.

  • Carlos Vecchio:

    We want to start the process of recover them, to control them, correct? We need — we want to do this, as I said before, progressively, orderly, and following legal procedures.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But Maduro has powerful allies. A Russian plane was spotted at the Caracas airport. Russia could help target Maduro's enemies, and prop him up financially.

    Today, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged Guaido to accept international mediation.

  • Sergei Lavrov:

    We call on the opposition to display a similar constructive approach, reject ultimatums and act independently, basing their decisions only on the interests of the Venezuelan people.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But many Venezuelan people argue their country has collapsed. Supermarket shelves are empty because there's been a shortage of food. Medical patients have protested a shortage of medicine. Children play in the dark because of a shortage of power. And inflation is more than a million percent.

    The economic collapse has sparked the region's largest ever exodus. And now, led by a new popular opposition figure, demonstrators say they have nothing else to lose, and vow to keep fighting.

    To examine the U.S.' approach to Venezuela, we get two views.

    Benjamin Gedan was the South America director on the National Security Council staff during the Obama administration. He's now with the Woodrow Wilson Center. And Isaias Medina, he was a senior diplomat at the United Nations under Nicolas Maduro. He publicly resigned in 2017, in protest of human rights violations.

    Thank you very much to both.

    Isaias Medina, let me start with you.

    This is one of the most aggressive attempts by the United States to change a government in Latin America in decades. Do you support it?

  • Isaias Medina:

    First of all, thank you, Nick, for having me in your program. And thanks, PBS, for their interest in the dire situation in my country.

    I — not only I, but 30 million people support not only the U.S. circumstance, but also the Latin American initiative to restore the rule of law, democracy and freedom in Venezuela.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    OK.

    So, Benjamin Gedan, let me ask you about some specifics about what the U.S. has pursued, as we just discussed, trying to divert some of the money away from Nicolas Maduro on oil, which is about 90 percent of Venezuelan revenue, and also a lot of discussion from the national security adviser about possibly using troops or suggestions that there could be troops sent to Colombia.

    Do you support those two moves?

  • Benjamin Gedan:

    I think both of those steps are problematic.

    I think the sense of urgency that the United States administration has shown is absolutely correct. The situation is tragic. It is heartbreaking, the lack of food and medicine in Venezuela.

    The question is, how can we assist the Venezuelan people promote a peaceful transition in Venezuela, without harming the people themselves or fracturing the coalition that we have built over two administrations?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, Isaias Medina, let me drill into that a little bit.

    There are some fears that diverting the oil revenues will hurt the Venezuelan people themselves. You have already got 3.5 million refugees. Those numbers could go up, and a lot of talk of troops, and, as Benjamin Gedan just said, risking the bipartisan consensus in Congress and also regional support, as you just mentioned.

    So do you have those same fears?

  • Isaias Medina:

    No, I actually believe that the forced displacement of 3.5 million refugees, spillover into neighboring countries, is actually because Maduro's regime has been oppressing, there is rampant violence, there is a humanitarian apocalypse that has been denied by the — and caused, induced by Maduro's regime.

    And the targeted oil sanctions have been right on point, coordinated with President Guaido, and will crush the financial boost from Maduro to keep harming the Venezuelan civilian population.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Benjamin Gedan, what is wrong with trying to crush Maduro's economy?

  • Benjamin Gedan:

    Crushing the economy means crushing the Venezuelan people, potentially.

    I mean, I don't think this economy or these people can bear any more suffering. The fact that these refugees have left to Venezuela and these migrants is certainly a sign that the situation is being poorly managed by the authorities, to say the least.

    The question, again, is, how can you effect a transition there without worsening the migration crisis or the humanitarian crisis? And I'm not sure we have found the right tools by threatening an invasion or cutting off entirely the economic lifeblood of the economy.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Isaias Medina, the national security adviser's reference to 5,000 troops in Colombia on his pad, he consistently says all options are on the table, is that helpful?

  • Isaias Medina:

    Yes. You know why?

    Because there is a proxy failed state with at least 22,000 Cuban agents that have infiltrated the armed forces. They are running the show. And then we have also the financial clout of China, with $65 billion in loans. And we have the military footprint of Russia, with at least $12 billion in arms and weapons.

    So if we do not show our strength now, we will not be able to either offer a way out. It either can be a peaceful way out, or he will choose with his very violate anti-Western rhetoric.

    But what we have to look at here is that more than half-a-million Venezuelans have been silently exterminated by this humanitarian crisis which has been induced to maintain the regime in power. So it is very important that we have a show of strength and that we can bring humanitarian aid as soon as possible.

    If it needs to be with military support, so be it. Venezuelans will welcome the troops from a coalition that will preserve the humanitarian aid with open arms.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Benjamin Gedan, how do you get that humanitarian aid into Venezuela, if you don't have some kind of military backing behind it?

  • Benjamin Gedan:

    Yes, I mean, I think the first thing you can do is provide humanitarian aid to the Venezuelans who have left.

    I think the United States has not been generous in that regard. The millions Venezuelans who have fled, half of them living in Colombia, could use U.S. support. There's been about $100 million the U.S. has committed. It needs to be a lot more generous.

    There needs to be protection for the Venezuelans in the United States who are seeking asylum. To get aid into Venezuela is nearly impossible. The government denies the humanitarian nightmare that it has created.

    I don't see any solution to that, other than a peaceful transition of power in Venezuela.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Isaias Medina, I want to quickly get to you on the future.

    Will the military continue to support Nicolas Maduro? Quickly.

  • Isaias Medina:

    Well, first of all, we need to separate a distinction between what are militaries and what are thugs. They are involved in drug trafficking and links to terrorism and transnational organized crime and wearing a uniform.

    For example, just look at this. There are 1,000 generals in the armed forces of Venezuela for 100,000 troops. So, honestly, I believe that, right now, progressively and slowly, some soldiers and police and even dissidents have shown the support to President Guaido's government.

    But it is not enough. People are dying daily, on the basis of hundreds of people, just from weaponization of starvation and medicine scarcity. So, we will see progressive deterioration of the armed forces, but we need faster solutions to this huge humanitarian crisis.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Benjamin Gedan, will the military continue to support Maduro?

  • Benjamin Gedan:

    Look, I think Maduro is the get-out-of-jail-free card for members of the military that have been robbing Venezuela for years.

    I think they're going to stick with the government until the absolute last minute. I think some amount of amnesty is probably all that's needed when the moment comes that they decide that they have got a bad deck of cards.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Isaias Medina, Benjamin Gedan, thank you both.

  • Isaias Medina:

    Thank you.

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